Editor's Note: Star Tribune economy reporter and well-known soccer lover Adam Belz is here to take us through his three keys to USA-Germany. Adam?
Michael Bradley must have his best game of the World Cup and leave the first two matches behind him.
Bradley, the clear leader for Team USA throughout qualifying, has come under fire after he lost the ball with 39 seconds before the final whistle, triggering the Portuguese counterattack that ended with Cristiano Ronaldo crossing beautifully to a charging Silvestre Varela, who thumped the ball into the net with his head. Game over. A tragic draw.
Bradley has his defenders but the giveaway in the waning moments was unacceptable, especially for a player known for his mental toughness. Against Ghana he turned in his worst performance in recent memory. Against Portugal he played better and was able to key a fluid U.S. attack, but he was still uncharacteristically sloppy.
There was a nice sequence in the 35th minute that epitomized how good Bradley is and how he was just a bit off. The U.S. team built an attack gradually from deep in its own territory. Bradley started it from the left sideline by playing Clint Dempsey, who was checking to the ball at the half line. The ball moved methodically from left to right and then back to the left, touching the feet of six more Americans before Dempsey played a square ball to Bradley at the top of the box. The buildup left the ever-threatening Fabian Johnson wide open, lurking on the right wing in acres of space. To his credit (and this is not something many players would try) Bradley saw that Johnson was open and tried to one-time a left-footed lob across his body to Johnson. Had it fallen to Johnson, it would have been a brilliant pass, setting up a likely one-on-one with the keeper. But Bradley didn’t hit the pass the way he would have liked, a little low, and a Portuguese defender intercepted it.
It was that kind of night for the center midfielder. He missed a chance for what would have been an outstanding goal early in the second half when Johnson flashed down the right wing, drew the goalkeeper out and zipped a diagonal ball across the box to Bradley’s feet. Bradley, facing an open goal but for defender Ricardo Costa cowering on the goal line, struck the ball right at Costa’s thigh. No goal. And then he lost the ball deep in stoppage time, leading to Portugal’s equalizer.
But despite all the criticism he’s taken, Bradley is America’s best player. Match after match he has proven to be the technical and emotional heart of the U.S. men’s national team. On his best days he wins the ball, makes smart decisions, calmly shifts the point of attack, creates dangerous chances with his passing (see his chip to Johnson for that lovely goal in the June 1 tune-up against Turkey), and generally is the hub through which the American attack flows. He returned to form for large portions of the Portugal game, but his mistakes were big ones. He needs to build on the positives of the Portugal game and do better against the Germans.
The outside midfielders need to generate more chances.
Throughout Sunday’s game against Portugal, the right side of the American attack was a force. Right back Fabian Johnson bombed down the flank repeatedly and dragged the ball across for Bradley’s should-have-been-a-goal. DeAndre Yedlin, the 20-year-old Seattle Sounders back who came on for Alejandro Bedoya in the second half, enjoyed similar freedom to roam, and created the chance that led to Dempsey’s go-ahead goal.
It was exciting to watch these two young players – aided by Ronaldo’s disinterest in the hard work of defending -- wreak havoc against the left side of the Portuguese defense. What was lacking, throughout the match, was anything resembling that sort of energy from Bedoya or Graham Zusi. Zusi was in the right place at the right time to pick up a loose ball and assist Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal, and he made the cool, correct decision to play a waist-high ball across to Dempsey when lesser men would have tried to blast a shot from a poor angle. He also was part of several clever combinations throughout the game. But he did his best work in the middle of the field. He failed to create anything dangerous from the left side, and he gave the ball away at least five times.
Neither Zusi nor Bedoya looked like a threat on the ball. And Bedoya was largely invisible before he was replaced by Yedlin. DaMarcus Beasley made a few runs up the left side, but looked tentative. Maybe that’s just how it’s going to be. Jurgen Klinsmann may be happy to attack with Johnson on the right and settle for Beasley’s savvy defending and Zusi’s set piece contributions (he’s good with a dead ball). But you have to wonder what Klinsmann thought of Bedoya’s performance and Zusi’s flat-footedness on the wing, and whether he is considering throwing 19-year-old Julian Green onto the pitch to give the U.S. some left side pace, especially after Yedlin’s success on Sunday.
Geoff Cameron needs to clear his head.
The center back’s errant clearance in the opening minutes of the game was obviously a disastrous mistake, the definition of an unforced error. Portugal is dangerous enough without the U.S. turning a harmless cross into an inch-perfect chip to Nani on the back post, but that’s what Cameron did.
Thankfully the U.S. regrouped, but Cameron cannot let something similar happen against Germany. And while Bradley has taken the lion’s share of the criticism for the last-second goal that tied the match, Cameron (and Fabian Johnson, for that matter) must answer for it as well. Cameron was tracking with Varela through the box, but failed to meet Ronaldo’s cross, instead raising a leg half-heartedly as Varela pounded the cross into the net.
Had he dealt with that cross as he should have, Thursday’s match against Germany would be a relaxing affair. Now it will be a nail-biter. We must win or draw against arguably the world’s best soccer team, or face the possibility of elimination. Cameron’s center back counterpart Matt Besler has emerged as a rock in the middle and played very well in this World Cup. I counted eight defensive interventions by him against Portugal, some of them crucial, and no giveaways. Jermaine Jones (though he still wastes possession more than he should) has also played well. Cameron needs to follow suit and turn in a mistake-free performance on Thursday.